The Chester blog

2013:  citizens of Deva were arguing about parking charges, students, races and the death of the city. Storyhouse was an as yet unnamed distant dream, as was the 24 hour Asda and “shared space” on Frodsham street, BHS was still trading and we only had one pound shop. The Waitrose site was a decayed wasteland. Carriage Shed, The Live Rooms, Cathedral at Height, Chester Visual Arts, Chester BID, and the coke truck all lay ahead in the future.

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The iconic “We need more shit” graffiti  which inspired the accounts evolution

@ShitChester launched with no strategy or aspiration, other than to pass time and have fun,   and went on to become semi successful , tapping into some of the existential angst surrounding the city before gradually changing into a more positive examination of the city’s many positives and negatives. “You were funnier in 2013” say the critics, of which there have been many, from those who have misunderstood the name, those who have lashed out on social media, or those who have used and abused “the account” taking its tweets and coverage for granted. Nothing stays the same and 5 years have changed the nature of the account and the spin off blog, alongside the Chester social media scene’s rapid growth. More people are doing things in Chester than ever before, more voices and opinions scattered across the social media void.  This has created an exciting pluralism which has boosted the development of the cultural scene in Chester.   However, many are still  rooted in the “everything is awful” mentality, the council are killing the city and we’re all doomed under the shadow of Cheshire Oaks and Broughton… the anti everything foaming at the mouth Chronicle facebook comments, others pining for an imagined golden era of the 50s and 60s, before modern life got in the way.  On the other hand the marketing people brand the city as #perfectchester despite its ongoing problems, blunted hopes and the  frustrations of many. Why can’t Dee House be put to good use, why can’t we make more of the rows, why can’t the death toll on Frodsham street be lower etc?  The moaners exist in their own bubble, blind to the merits of this wonderful city, and in 5 years I’ve been privileged to meet so many people working to improve things here.  Without mentioning the countless parades, festivals, events, drama or musical performances,  shop openings, shop closures, or LEGO, here’s a look back at just a few of my most memorable memories, rows and experiences.

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Early days: we are still funny occasionally

The bus shelter row of summer 2013 concerned the removal of perfectly good concrete bus shelters with tiny yellow shacks, as the city crawled towards the opening of the new bus station  over 4 years later.  A bizarre move by the council and an insult to bus users the shelters were hopelessly inadequate and the removal of the old shelters made no sense with the new facility so far away. Often leaving public transport users standing in the rain or baking beneath the greenhouse style glass, this issue aroused the campaigning spirit of SC in the early days. The farce continued when 2 of the shelters “went missing” in the middle of the night after a row over non payment with the suppliers.. Angry tweets were noticed by opposition councillors including long time supporter Sam Dixon and and eventually an apology was issued with cwac saying they “got it wrong”. In 2016 one of the shelters was flattened by a bus during shortly after a memorial service for the Duke of Westminster at the Cathedral. The new bus station was another mega row with the demolition of the Ship Victory pub and then the rumors that the new delayed station was “too small” for buses to navigate. Glory days!

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prime ShitChester
The row with council leader Mike Jones made the local news and was a massive boost to the accounts profile and support. During a late night exchange of tweets the council leader accused SC of “driving away investment” and painting the city in a negative light, demanding the name of the account be changed. “You’ve got these people who slag off our beautiful city with a name like that” he told the local press.
The editor of the Chronicle spoke on Dee106.3 defending the account and I was later interviewed by Radio Merseyside about my frustrations with Chester life. Ironically the row had happened after a visit to see Tip Top Productions version of “Bouncers”, one of my first explorations into Chester’s overlooked and much criticised cultural scene. “Nothing ever happens in Chester” people would say, how wrong they were.
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After a 2 year cold war Mike and I met at the 2015 election count and went on to become friends even going on a tour of Chester tram sites together and taking part in the popular “Ear of the tiger” show on Flipside radio. When the controversial politician stepped down as leader of the local Conservative Party, he chose the Chester blog to announce it- a move for which I also received a wave of criticism- for not being negative and critical enough. We had always avoided being party political and over time developed a more consensual tone (mostly) with social media being used to try and effect positive change or at the very least achieve a better understanding for the reasons behind the many grievances of the city. Without the Mike Jones row, ShitChester would never have reached its prominence in the city or gained so many links and friends with local news organisations. All credit to Mike! 
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The Brook street tree incident was an early negative and an example of unnecessary offence taking. During a casual walk home down Brook street, and following a series of similar tweets depicting Christmas trees of the city, a snap of the Brook street tree outside the Catholic club caused massive offence with the owners of said establishment.  There was no agenda and the only caption was “the Brook street tree”, however a wave of angry tweets followed, accusing me  of giving people another reason to “laugh at Brook street” and poking fun at the tree, because of the barriers that surrounded the tree. “Why are you being so defensive? about barriers” I asked back, perhaps a poor choice of words causing even more offence. It was just a picture of a tree and I had repeatedly stated that there was no intention of poking fun- having previously championed several businesses on Brook street. Over the 5 years there has always been people who haven’t got “it” especially with the concept being so fluid, sometimes random and shifting in tone. This however was just insane and multiple social media blocks followed. In 2016 we produced a Lego model of Brook street for an educational charity and toured it around 3 local schools.  It was later displayed in the Catholic Club, with some kind of closure achieved.

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The late Jonny Walker: an honour to have met him in 2015

In 2015 the new Labour council announced a consultation about a Public Spaces Protection Order with proposals covering bird feeding, busking, and rough sleeping. A social media war erupted once again, with various groups arguing in favour of Simon Cowell  style busking controls, whilst critics attacked the alleged involvement of the CH1 BID group. Busking campaigner and activist Jonny Walker came to Chester  to galvanise the community against the proposals. As well as taking part in meetings with the council, along with comedian Mark Thomas, took part in a “sitting down” protest in the city. Said Jonny at the time: “I think its been really heart warming, a demonstration of the best of Chester. A vibrant community of people who care about civic responsibility and public space. These proposals aren’t coming from Chester, they are alien to the culture.”.  Thankfully the proposals were dropped and buskers were allowed to carry on playing, whilst a new code of conduct was negotiated.  The tragic death of Jonny in March 2018 makes this memory all the more poignant. RIP.

 

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What the Romans would have wanted?

 

Dig up Deva, described as Chester’s “Brexit” by one commentator split the city in the summer of 2016. Noted homelessness campaigner Adam Dandy of Dandy’s Topsoil (and co founder of the pioneering Share Shop) advocated the demolition of listed eyesore Dee House to dig up whatever was left of the other half of the amphitheatre.  The noble cause was boosted by a well supported petition, yet was somewhat out of sync with the realities of the situation and the failure of successive councils to do anything about the mess. Opponents argued that Dee House was as relevant to Chester’s history as its Roman heritage, and also that the site owners English Heritage were opposed to any excavation.  A debate organised in conjunction with Chris Matheson MP was well attended but ultimately achieved very little with the council announcing that pub chain Thwaites would be renovating Dee House back in August 2016. Dig up Deva was a battle for the city’s soul, which ultimately nobody won. I was personally harassed for daring to take the opposing line and felt that the Dig lobby hadn’t adequately explained how they would get over the numerous problems associated with potential excavation and in one low,  I suffered face to face harassment.  The fact that nearly two years later nothing has happened to the site made it all for nothing, and some damaged relationships were never repaired.  It also led to a further shift away from campaigning issues on SC and towards more reporting based features, with the  critical tone being blunted by the intensity and aggressive online debates.  Dig or no dig the current situation is a mess, but at least we gained the all encompassing and brilliant phrase “It’s what the Romans would have wanted”. Thank you Adam Dandy ( we’re friends again now).

The opening of Storyhouse in 2017 was easily the best thing to happen to Chester in decades. Did anyone believe it would even be possible in 2013? I remember attending a drop in event at the town hall viewing the early plans and sharing the cynicism of many in the city. Being able to document the emergence of Storyhouse was a real privilege, an initial site visit when the foundations were being laid revealed nostalgic echoes of the old Odeon which had been empty since 2007, narrowly avoiding being turned into a night club. Construction progress was slow but steady with the building eventually opening in May 2017. In true Chester style even its moment of glory had to be tarnished by the never happy,  with the bookcases, lack of craft beer and ticketing facilities attacked. In this age of austerity and library closures, Chester is lucky to have such a vibrant multi purpose facility which has already hosted some class touring shows alongside countless community groups and the venue’s home produced shows. Whilst the extra footfall generated by the arts centre and library couldn’t save Mountfords newsagents from closure, the best thing about Storyhouse is how it will fuel the theatre memories of future generations.  The potential to be the Royalty theatre and the Gateway rolled into one.

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Alex Clifton May 2016. Done pretty well

Meeting Terry Wogan in June 2015 was a fantastic privilege, just a few months before his death in the bleak January of 2016. Visiting the city for an episode of a show about regional food offerings, Terry filmed the Food Assembly at Telfords where we initially met the TV legend and observed the filming of the TV show.  The next day, the last filming spot was the Cheese shop on Northgate street. Outside Terry was gracious with fans, posing for photographs in the summer glare. Soon he was ushered away into a waiting car as we said goodbye to the production team. Seconds later a Wogan superfan came running down the street, desperately searching for him. “Is Terry Wogan here?” she asked agitatedly – the camera man lied that he was still inside the cheese shop to throw her off the scent. Emerging confused, the fan knocked on the window of the departing car and Terry wound down the window for a brief awkward few words.

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Alongside Terry its been great meeting a few other famous people when they have come to Chester. TV’s Les Battersby was an early spot, drinking in Starbucks. “Ashley” and “Kirk” came to open the short-lived Wayne Walker Meat in the Forum, and Barbara Windsor was spotted filming a bingo advert.  Jeff Stelling came to Chester FC, and Ricky Tomlinson made allegations about another TV star whilst opening the Bull and Stirrup. Steve Coogan in 2017 touring the newly opened Storyhouse then addressing a Labour rally was another highlight.  Somehow I ended up filming a video with Ian Puleston Davies walking around Hoole and championing their Great British High Street Bid. Yes the man who drew a chalk penis on Alan Partridge’s back is a Chester resident.

During the election of 2015 we gained a new level of legitimacy when we were invited to cover the count at the Northgate arena. Having stepped up the political output with tweets from election hustings, this was a wonderful experience and marked another shift towards more “serious” coverage.  Following the election politicians were keen to get on board and over the next few years we interviewed the new Conservative leader Lynn Riley,  Lord Major Hugo Deynem, and travelled to Winsford to ask the police commissioner who his favourite Batman was. We also managed to get the official council press list as a result of this work and were soon invited to press conferences as well as the launch of the new bus station. “I’m from @ShitChester“.. During the bore fest that was the 2017 election campaign we were even asked to provide some election analysis on Radio five live.

From being an irreverent outsider in 2013, some will have felt that the account was now part of the establishment and a betrayal of its shallow roots. However from moaning about things in 2013, we had now realised that actual dialogue with civic leaders was an important step in understanding how the city operated.  Covering the growth of Frack Free Upton for example,  was particularly interesting as an Upton resident. From protests to camp formation and eviction this was a fascinating time to be a part of.

The musical event at Alexanders on Easter Sunday 2017was a huge personal highlight made possible by support from all across the community- long time friend and supporter Gavin Matthews who hosted alongside Nick Arkell, all of the acts that performed, and the countless businesses and organisations that donated raffle prizes. This was a special night which brought many people who had followed the account together after many years of online chat.  The music supplied by  The Daymons, Busking lady, This is Vil, Alice Byrne, David Roberts and Fiction Lies and Dad Rock was a fantastic mix and the event was so popular that people were soon being turned away.  With Alexanders the perfect hosts, it was an emotional evening and time to reflect with  £1600 raised for our charity partners The Samaritans.  Organised in less than a month to celebrate the 4 year anniversary of the account, the planned 5 year party was cancelled due to personal mess ups and the loss of several key city centre allies (RIP Jims Haberdashery) which led to a loss in confidence and rapid drop in blog output heading into the 5th year. In 2016 the pinnacle of our output, 152 blogs were published as we extended our influence into more and more aspects of city life. In 2017 we produced half this number as world weariness set in. But this was a brilliant night full of like minded people coming together for a good cause.

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Friends made during 4 years of tweeting
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Full house at Alexanders. Pic: Maurice Roberts

The Flat Earth society meeting of late 2017 was the ultimate indulgence of our Louis Theroux journalistic fantasies. We had seen some weird scenes over the years, with the “Death cafe” in a Brook street funeral parlour being up there, or watching Heather Mills force feed chicken style nuggets to passers by outside Holland and Barret.. but nothing could top this insanity.  Welcomed by the society initially after seeing some of their facebook posts we were interested in how they knew better than the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of years of scientific progress. The answer was that they had watched some videos on youtube. The earth was flat and surrounded by an “ice wall” with everyone from NASA to EasyJet in on the mega conspiracy. The night took a surreal turn when the society leader Vic Button launched an attack on the council for “killing the market”.. the connection to flat earth left us stumped and the society responded with increasing personal abuse.  The blog was one of our biggest hits , but was in some ways a pyrrhic victory- because nothing on the globe earth could top it. Where do we go from here ???

 

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I wish that I could be like the cool kids

 

whipcordlane
Still a beautiful world

2018: and as a jaded but  hopeful tweeter I still believe in Chester. Of course the accounts changed and I have taken and continue to take the criticism and negativity. Whether that’s being being snubbed or unfollowed by someone you have written a blog about and championed, online attacks from the likes of Chester’s top troll Karl Cleveley about a charity event, once being threated with physical violence, or a bizarre twitter attack from nostalgia bullyboy  Joe Smoe over a changed twitter handle. Mad world. People have been known to shuffle nervously at the account name even after 5 years which wont even get a shrug of the shoulders from me now. Critics of the non corporate nature of this account must realise that it was never here to make money or to appease the liberal elites. Its refreshing to be able to provide a mix of coverage from a political interview  to photos of overflowing bins or riverside sunsets. It’s been a great 5 years  I’ve met some amazing people, whose paths I would never have crossed without SC.  Whilst the inner circle has diminished and shifted over time, I won’t forget the kindness of hundreds of groups and individuals. It has been the best of times: from exploring the vaults of the Grosvenor museum, riding in a Tuk Tuk to pretending to be a journalist at the grand opening of B&M. Sometimes its also been the worst of times, but Chester keeps on moving towards its destiny. Will it be perfect Chester, or will everything fall into dust, breaking the dead hearts of our Roman ancestors? That’s for Chester to decide, I am just a twitter account.

 

Peace and love and thanks you to everyone who has been here along the way.

I dedicate this blog to Jonny Walker, Margaret McKeegan,  and Steph Burton. RIP

 

 

3 Replies to “5 years of @Shitchester”

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